- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2016

Beneath the positive press the military receives for preparing to mold women into the nation’s first female ground warriors this year, there is another story far more basic to war fighting.

Some lawmakers are warning that budget cuts, a troop drawdown and a decade and a half of wars have created spotty combat readiness, overburdened forces, more fatal accidents and beat-up weapons.

Weeks of congressional testimony from the top brass on next year’s $524 billion defense budget shows that many Army brigades and Air Force squadrons are less ready. The Marine Corps lacks sufficient aircraft to fully train pilots. The Army and Marine Corps can wage small wars but doubt they can meet the demands of a major conflict against, say, China or Russia, in a time frame called for in official military strategy.

After this sober news, the House Armed Services Committee sounded the alarm: “Concerns are growing louder and more frequent about the real-life consequences of cuts to personnel, training, equipment and other military resources as the security situation around the world becomes more precarious by the day.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican and committee chairman, issued scary statistics. The Marine Corps’ major, or “Class A,” accident rate has shot up from an average of 2.15 per 100,000 flying hours to 3.96.

“We track this very closely, and the simple fact is that we don’t have enough airplanes to meet the training requirements for the entire force,” said Gen. Robert Neller, Marine commandant. “The force that’s deployed is trained and ready.”

“Our ability to meet other regional requirements for major contingency plans, we would build to do that, but we would probably not be able to do it within the time frame that the current plans call for us to arrive to participate in that conflict,” Gen. Neller said.

Gen. Mark Milley, Army chief of staff, said rotary pilots need a minimum of 14 flying hours a month to stay sharp but are getting only 10 hours. Meanwhile, the Army’s major accident rates are increasing.

“It does have our concern,” he testified. “Our aircraft accidents have increased, and we’re very concerned about it.”

Gen. Milley said the force, cut from more than 490,000 to a planned 450,000, is sufficient for counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the overriding strategy of being able to fight a major overseas war is in doubt.

“If that were to happen, then I have great concerns in terms of readiness of our force, the Army forces to be able to deal with that in a timely manner,” he said. “I think the cost, both in terms of time, casualties and troops, and the ability to accomplish military objectives would be very significant.”

The reason: The overall status of Army Combat Brigade teams to mobilize and deploy has dropped.

The Army supplies about 70 percent of troops and equipment requested by combatant commanders and has suffered nearly 70 percent of all war casualties since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“So you’ve got the largest force, the largest demand, the largest stress and the least budget,” he said.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, has taken to issuing a readiness report at each service’s budget hearing.

He said the Navy’s fleet of 272 ships “is too small to address critical security challenges” and that Navy aircraft carriers, the United States’ show of force around the world, are no longer constantly in the Persian Gulf region because of needed maintenance.

“The Marines have a requirement for 38 amphibious ships, but they only have 30 in the fleet,” he said. “And Marine Corps aviation is in crisis. Pilots are not flying.

“Each of our military services remains undersized, unready and underfunded to meet current and future threats,” he said.

Why the crunch? The overriding factor is the 2011 Budget Control Act that mandated across-the-board cuts and then limited agency spending. Last year’s bipartisan budget agreement provided some relief to the Pentagon — $25 billion. But a congressional aide says it is still $17 billion short for fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1.

Mr. McCain criticizes President Obama, saying that as commander in chief he should recognize the readiness crisis and ask Congress for more spending.

“Instead, the president chose to request the lowest level of defense spending authorized by last year’s budget agreement and submitted a defense budget that is actually less in real dollars than last year, despite the fact that operational requirements had grown,” the senator said.

Dakota Wood, a military analyst at The Heritage Foundation, said that while “the president can ask for whatever he wants,” it’s up to Congress to change the budget act.

“The president can only spend what Congress provides,” he said. “Thus, the funding problem plaguing the military can only be solved by Congress, which simply must find a way to deal with the country’s larger spending problem.”

One cure, he said, would be to repeal the Budget Control Act in favor of reforming the big “drivers of debt” — entitlements and yearly deficits.

Meanwhile, some relief comes from a separate defense budget account, Overseas Contingency Operations, at $59 billion next year, from which the services can replace some equipment.

“Though derided as a gimmick, by everyone involved, OCO funding is now consistently seen as the only way to get around baseline caps and provide the additional funding needed to stem the decline in readiness,” Mr. Wood said.

Meanwhile, Congress will continue to hear testimony like this:

“So half of our combat Air Forces are not sufficiently ready for that kind of a high-end fight against one of those great powers,” said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

“We have never been busier on such a sustained and global basis,” she added, “and we are doing all of this with roughly 200,000 fewer people and 79 fewer fighter squadrons than we had at the time of Operation Desert Storm. So we are a much, much smaller Air Force. We have been downsizing for years, and our people are very stressed and this simply needs to stop.”

Gen. Milley said the Army is ready to fight the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups, but he worries about the ability to fully fight China or Russia, or Iran or North Korea, as the National Military Strategy says the Army must be ready to do.

“Right now, the readiness of the United States Army, all components of the United States Army, is not at a level that is appropriate for what the American people would expect to defend them,” the four-star general testified.

As for the great social challenge facing the armed forces — the introduction of women into direct ground combat — the topic hardly came up during hours of what are called “posture” hearings.

Joe Kasper, chief of staff for Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, said a number of lawmakers are pressing the military for answers behind the scenes.

“The administration already knows where they want to be on this issue and where they are going,” Mr. Kasper said, adding that women in combat likely will come up when the committee writes the 2017 defense budget.

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